So I decided, if I am to raise awareness of autism, it would be useful to know what the datum is.
I realised it’s all very well talking to other aspies, parents of autistic children, professional care-workers, and others in the know – but if I wanted to know the level of awareness amongst the general population, I also needed to talk to the man on the street. Short of actually going out into the street (though I might yet do this) the closest I could get was to ask fellow drinkers in the pub. We have a good cross-section of the community in my local, and my responders included a working man, a middle class woman, and a member of the House of Lords (just come in for a quiet pint with his wife, poor bloke). I asked them plain questions, with no leading, correction or comments of my own. I explained that I wanted their perceptions, however prejudiced, ignorant or opinionated. This is what I asked them, and their replies are in no particular order:
If I said I didn’t know anything about autism, and asked you what it was, what would you say?
I don’t know.
I don’t understand it – don’t need to understand it; we’re all equal human beings.
You watch it on TV, and read about it in the newspaper… is it a children-related thing?
Is it a mental illness?
Autism isn’t the same as autistic… is it?
It’s is not physical or physiological, it’s a mental illness (like depression).
Autistic people have no need for emotional support.
Ooh, I’d have to think really hard about that one.
I know more about the mild form of autism – it’s a mental disorder.
It’s about control, OCD, neatness, need for order, emotionally challenged, difficult to mould.
They always have their own agenda.
They are emotionally challenged.
It’s a condition with communication problems – they can be non-communicative.
They can communicate through other channels, such as art.
They are difficult people to care for, because they live in their own world.
Can it be cured?
It can’t be cured, but it can be managed.
You can’t catch it. They’re born with it, aren’t they?
If it could be cured, I think autistic people could lead independent lives.
(No one else had any suggestions about cause or cure)
Do you know anyone with autism?
My daughter tells me she thinks my grandson has Asperger’s syndrome, but that’s not autism.
(No one else said they knew anyone with autism, and I’ve been a regular in that pub for two years…)
Do you think you could identify someone with autism?
No, but if I met someone with autism, I would read up on it – but I wouldn’t ask about it; that would be patronising.
I could spot it pretty quickly.
I wouldn’t necessarily be able to spot it, it would depend on how severe it was.
Thalidomide you can see, but you can’t see autism.
I’d know as soon as someone spoke to me.
I’d be able to tell after a while.
Do you think the onus is on autistic people to integrate themselves into society, or is the onus on society to help bridge the communication gap?
It’s a two-way thing.
Well, they can’t do it by themselves!
The onus is on society (most common answer)
Only one person asked me “what is it then,” and I answered his questions for a minute or so (I still didn’t tell him I was autistic – don’t know why!). He thanked me for explaining and said he was glad to have the knowledge and a new insight.
I suppose the best thing was that when I left, they were all talking about autism.